Most people think of equality as a modern idea. Americans, especially, are fond of citing the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal.” Here, they suppose, was a radical new notion, a principle universal in scope, even if the Founders failed to apply it fully at the time. Scholars, for their part, differ about the exact point of origin. But they also generally agree that equality is a recent invention. As David Graeber and David Wengrow note in their best-selling The Dawn of Everything, prior to the 17th and 18th centuries the concept of social equality “simply did not exist.”
In truth, however, the concept had existed for a long time. Jefferson acknowledged that the Declaration drew from sources going back to antiquity that had helped form the “common sense” of the 18th century. Thomas Paine, who knew something about common sense, agreed. “The equality of man, so far from being a modern doctrine, is the oldest upon record,” he affirmed in his book Rights of Man, noting that “the Mosaic account of the creation was fully consistent with the “unity or equality of man.” In 1776, The Founders’ close ally, the French duke Louis Alexandre de La Rochefoucauld, added in his Lettre d’un banquier de Londres à M. that the proposition that “all men are created equal” was a long“established truth” of religion. What these 18th century observers understood is what too many have since forgotten or failed to see: equality has a long history. By uncovering its religious and pre-revolutionary past, we can catch a glimpse of the ambiguous legacy its bequeathed to the future.
In fact, many of the world’s religions develop ideas about equality. But in the U.S. it was the Jewish and Christian traditions that did the most to establish its deep foundations. As the rabbi and scholar Joshua A. Berman has argued, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, establishes the bases of a new social, political, and religious order “founded on egalitarian ideals.” God’s original covenant was made with the Jewish people, without distinctions of class or caste. That planted the seed of the principle of equality before the law, and it ennobled ordinary men and women, who were conceived as God’s children.
Other scholars, like historians of political thought David Lay Williams and Eric Nelson have argued that the provisions spelled out in the Hebrew Bible for manumission, land redemption, and debt forgiveness at the regular intervals of sabbatical and Jubilee years were mechanisms for curbing social inequality. And Nelson points out that rabbinical commentators on Biblical land law accorded divine sanction to the equal distribution of property that was later appropriated by Christians. One such figure, the 17th century Republican James Harrington, whose work profoundly influenced the Founders, argued at length in his tract The Commonwealth of Oceana that “Equality of estates causeth equality of power.” His point was that a rough equality of property was the very basis of a well-balanced republic. As John Adams noted approvingly in a letter to lawyer and politician James Sullivan in 1776, “Harrington has shown that power always follows property… The only possible way, then, of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtue, is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society.”
To be sure, such egalitarian sentiments had multiple sources. Classical and Christian precedents were no less important, and in the case of “all men are created equal,” the debt runs deep.
The affirmation had deep roots in the ancient philosophical school of Stoicism, which exerted a strong influence on early Christians. Stoics posited the essential likeness of human beings, who were conceived as fellow citizens in the shared polis (“city”) that is the cosmos (“universe”). “Cosmo-politanism” followed naturally from Stoic premises, as did St. Paul’s famous assertions in his letters to the Galatians and the Colossians that in God’s eyes there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, Barbarian nor Scythian in Christ Jesus. All were one.
And all were created equal. It was a common Stoic thought, which found its way into Roman law, transcribed by the jurist Ulpian. “As far as the law of nature is concerned,” one reads in the great legal code compiled under the emperor Justinian, “all men are equal.” The early fathers of the church agreed, affirming in one voice that human beings were free and equal in their original nature. When Pope Gregory the Great observed in his influential commentary on the Book of Job in the late sixth century that “Omnes homines natura aequales genuit” (“All men are created equal by nature.”), he was summing up centuries of Christian reflection.
But there is a rub. Ulpian and the Stoics saw no conflict between natural equality and the very real inequalities of the Roman world. Those included chattel slavery, which Romans understood as a legitimate consequence of captivity in war. Christians did too. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” St. Paul counsels, “with fear and trembling,” in the memorable rendering of the King James Bible. Gregory, who as pope owned enslaved persons himself, also invoked equality in the context of slavery, an institution he had no intention of challenging. By a “secret dispensation,” he argued, God had chosen in his mysterious wisdom to subject some to the authority of others. Because of original sin, which marred the equality of creation, not all could be equal. That was the way of the world. And so for centuries it remained.
Repeated widely by Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, and by theorists of natural law from Francisco Suárez and Roberto Bellarmino to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the common assertion that “all men are created equal” coexisted comfortably with the understanding that not all were meant to be treated equally in life. That, too, was part of the 18th century’s received common sense.
And yet it is also true that beginning in the 17th century, radical Christians sought to imbue those words with greater force. Amidst the upheavals of the English Civil War, the Leveller and Puritan John Lilburne announced in 1646 pamphlet The Freeman’s Freedom Vindicated, that “every particular and individual man and woman that ever breathed in the world since [Adam and Eve] are and were by nature all equal and alike in power, dignity, authority, and majesty, none of them having (by nature) any authority, dominion, or magisterial power, one over the other.” Differences in authority could only ever be legitimate when granted by “free consent”—which is to say that they must be put to a vote.
Americans in the 18th-century took note. And while they, like their English relations, continued to factor out myriad exceptions to the general equality of humankind— most notably, women, the indigenous, and the enslaved—the Christian conscience was piqued, prompting efforts in the years to come to better reconcile the equality of creation with equality of fact.
Indeed, scarcely was the ink on the Declaration dry when the first Black minister ordained in America, the revolutionary veteran Lemuel Haynes, called out what he saw as the contradiction between human beings’ equal creation and their unequal rights. He was joined in the 19th century by a motley collection of Christians less complacent than many of their predecessors. They pushed to end the slave trade and slavery itself, and to extend equal rights to women and people of African descent. Their greatest heir was none other than Martin Luther King Jr., fittingly a pastor, who understood that if God had created human beings as equals, then it was godly work to seek to restore them to the fullness of their creation.